A Short Introduction to the Mbira
So what is this mbira thingy in the first place? The mbira dzavadzimu, the one seen in the picture, is the national instrument of Zimbabwe. It consists of 22 to 28 metallic keys fixed to a wooden board and arranged in three different sets. To amplify the sound while playing it’s traditionally placed in a calabash resonator called deze. This particular mbira has, however, a pickup built into it and can be connected to an amplifier.
The mbira seen in the picture is tuned with Nyamaropa tuning which has a lot in common with western Mixolydian mode tuning. The 22 keys span almost three octaves but are not arranged in a strictly linear fashion. This can be very confusing at first but is pretty easy to get used to. This is not in any way important to know in order to play the mbira but serves more like a short introduction. If you want to know more about the mbira you can head over to Wikipedia and read up on it there. Otherwise there’s a section on music theory where the mapping of chords on the mbira is described. You can also, of course, skip right to the section where there’s a description on how to play the mbira.
Before you continue you should know that this information is in no way based on any great experience of playing the mbira. It is mostly based on what can be found on the Internet and what has been learned through trial and error. It’s probably a rather unorthodox approach to it all since it’s written by someone with a musical background from Western Europe. Hopefully you can find it to be helpful and/or of interest anyway.
Some Music Theory
Music theory was the starting point in order to learn how to play the mbira. In this section there’s a brief description of the theory needed to map chords to it. The notation can be a little confusing sometimes since both sharps and flats are used. This is, however, not that important for the conclusion so please bear with it. Clicking on the sheet music will show the LilyPond code used to generate each picture respectively.
All chords are built up by a group of notes according to different patterns, the basic ones by three notes known as a triad. Major chords are built up in one way, minor chords in another, seventh chords in a third etc. This section will describe the different chord types and what is possible to play on an mbira.
A good way to learn how chords are built up is to look at scales. It consists of eight notes spanning an octave, ending on the same note as it started but one octave higher. The picture below shows the Major C scale.
The Chromatic scale contains not only the notes found in the Major scale but also all notes and semitones (sharps of flats) between them in an octave.
Major chords are build up by a root note and what’s called a major third and a perfect fifth. A C Major is formed by setting C as the root and then picking the third and fifth notes in the scale as seen in the example below. This is sometimes notated 1-3-5.
So the triad that makes up a C Major is C, E and G. Now let’s take a look at the same notes in the chromatic scale. The same notes are marked but the semitones between them are now also visible. It’s apparent that the C Major is built up by the first, fifth and eighth semitone.
Minor chords are built up in a similar way to Major chords with one small difference; it’s built up by a root note and the fourth and eighth semitone. These are called the root note, minor third and perfect fifth, sometimes referred to as 1-♭3-5. The only difference between the C Major and C minor triad is thus that the E has been replaces by a E♭.
The triads can also be extended to include more notes. An example of this is the sevenths.
Dominant seventh chords, usually known as just “seventh” are based on a major triad with an added minor seventh (1-3-5-♭7). The notes in a dominant C seventh chord would thus be:
The Major seventh chords constist of a standard Major chord with a major seventh added (1-3-5-7). Picking these from the chromatic C scale would generate the following notes in a Cmaj7 chord.
A minor seventh consists of a standard minor chord with a minor seventh added (1-♭3-5-♭7). A Cmin7 would thus consist of the following notes:
Playing the Mbira
Since the mbira can only play whole notes it’s somewhat limited to what is possible to play. Let’s take a look at the chords in the section Some Music Theory to see what chords are made up of whole notes. All the chords with a sharp or flat root note have (for obvious reasons) been left out.
So there it is, C, F, G, Dm, Em, Am, G7, CMaj7, FMaj7, Dm7, Em7 and Am7 are possible to play! The only thing needed now is a mapping of the chords onto the mbira. The pictures showing the mapping of the chords onto the mbira were created using a guitar tuner and GIMP. The table below lists what notes makes up the different chords and the thumbnails links to the pictures showing the mapping. The root note is highlighted with black and the other notes are gray.
How to Hold the Mbira
Here’s a short description on how to hold the mbira, hopefully it makes sense if you look at the pictures as well.
- Put the little finger on your right hand through the hole in the bottom right corner of the wooden plate.
- The right thumb is used to play the three leftmost keys of the right hand register from above (yellow keys).
- The index finger is used to play the remaining keys to the right from below (blue keys).
- The left thumb is used to play the two sets of keys to the right (green keys) and the rest of the left hand’s fingers are used to hold on to the instrument.
Hopefully I’ll add some more information here at some point.